In Billy Budd, Foretopman (also known as Billy Budd, Sailor), the HMS Bellipotent, a seventy-four-gun ship of the line, intercepts the British merchantman Rights of Man and impresses seaman Billy Budd. Billy is the handsome sailor—extraordinarily attractive, able, well-intentioned, and amiable. He is flawed only by a sometimes severe speech impediment and—if flaws they be—by illiteracy and a total ignorance of human malice. When Billy is mustered into the king’s service, he reveals that he is a foundling, discovered in a silk-lined basket at the door of a good man of Bristol.
Soon after arriving on the man-of-war, Billy witnesses a flogging and resolves never to deserve such punishment. His good looks, his manifest good intentions, and his ability as a seaman win him ready acceptance among his shipmates but also the enmity of John Claggart, a petty officer charged with disciplining the crew. Claggart is as intelligent as Billy is innocent, and as pale as Billy is tanned. Claggart is also handsome but innately evil. Like Billy, he has obscure origins but possibly culpable ones, and like Billy, he is new to the Bellipotent, having been transferred from another ship. Claggart recognizes Billy’s virtues and resents them because he cannot duplicate them. His envy manifests itself first in trivial ways and then in an abortive attempt to entrap Billy in a bogus mutiny plot. Billy is too innocent to understand the proposal at first, too loyal to acquiesce, and too honorable to report the ambiguous solicitation. Mutiny has particular significance in the summer of 1797, a few months after the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, when all London had feared that rebellious crews would bring the fleet up the Thames. The mutinies had been put down and some of the sailors’ grievances addressed, but discipline in the fleet still seems tenuous in the midst of Britain’s war against revolutionary France.
Commanding the Bellipotent, Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, widely known as “Starry” Vere, is an accomplished officer—brave,...
(The entire section is 857 words.)